National vs. Local: Fleet Foxes and Magic Castles

The pastoral, as an artistic form, concerns itself with the idyllic rural, and it's a word that describes Fleet Foxes' self-titled debut more than any other (and not just because the album cover is adorned with "The Blue Cloak," a 16th-century painting in which shepherds and pig farmers act out Flemish proverbs). Within the album's sweetly harmonized vocals and lazy, rolling arrangements, there is that genuine sense of natural peace that has been chased by pastoral poets through the ages.

Not one of the 11 tracks has any zing or sense of urgency, but hooks and clever turns of phrase aren't the point. Instead, the album's a tapestry of pleasantness, woven with mild and delicate tones. Between sun-soaked forests and mountaintops, vocal reverb on tracks like "Quiet Houses" and "Blue Ridge Mountains" evokes the reverence of Gregorian chant. "White Winter Hymnal" is far and away the most elegantly composed track of the album. It's a two-and-a-half-minute song-haiku of sorts, upward-spiraling vocal rounds floating around the simple backing rhythms as the lyrics disturb the peaceful surface of the winter scene described ("And, Michael, you would fall/And turn the white snow red as strawberries/In the summertime").

Where Fleet Foxes takes a clear-eyed, bushy-tailed approach to the pastoral, local folkies Magic Castles' The Lore of Mysticore takes the device and injects a healthy dose of acid. Their songs have the same journey-is-better-than-the-destination meander, but instead of summer strolls in nature, these are drug-induced countryside wanderings through tracks with titles like "Cave Troll Blues" and "Now I'm a Little Cloud." Magic Castles replace acoustic accompaniment with guitars that are alternately dark and jangling, as well as heavier percussion. Most of the album's vocals are heavily reverbed, though here the technique doesn't evoke reverence so much as ghostliness and a smoky haze.

The most crafted track of Mysticore, "Ballad of the Golden Bird," retells the Brothers Grimm story of fortune-seeking travel in a way that brings to mind Samuel Taylor Coleridge's opium-induced poem "Kubla Khan." It features a wordless slow-build intro, highlighting an intentionally disorganized style of harmonization backed by a shimmering wall of gongs and throat singing. The effect is so lulling that by the time the lyrics start (more than two minutes in), we've already been transported to the "far and distant land" where "A magic castle stands/And in the ancient garden/There rose an enchanted tree."

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